I love Patti Smith and I love her writing style. But she’s a tough cookie, no doubt about it, and tough cookies sometimes lack empathy. Truth.
When a friend sent me Smith’s quote on grief I had to sit with it a while. Here’s the quote:
Grief starts to become indulgent and then it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if it you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people…”
Well. A few things:
She’s right about remembrance. When I talk about the loved ones I’ve lost with people who don’t know them, they DO get a little of the flavor of that person. Of course, if I wrote a book about them, as Smith did about her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, (Just Kids, which won a Pulitzer and is one of my favorite books) those who didn’t know my loved ones would get even more.
But of course, most of us do not write about our loved ones. So, from the get-go, Smith comes at grief as a writer. Which most people are not. Her writing is also known for keeping a distance from herself. So we don’t learn a whole lot about Smith from her book about her relationship with Mapplethorpe. And even when she writes about the death of her husband, Fred Smith, in her next book, M Train, we get only so far into Smith, herself. She calls the book a roadmap to her life. But is it? She doesn’t let us all the way in. She just doesn’t go there.
So it’s no surprise when Smith reflects impatience with grief and calls it “indulgent” and also that she says it’s “painful” as if that’s a reason to get through it quickly. She just doesn’t go there.
But not so fast.
Grief doesn’t work on a timetable. I can’t even imagine calling someone’s grief “indulgent,” which implies that it’s gone on too long or it’s too much.
And it’s stating the obvious to say it’s “painful.” Of COURSE it’s painful.
Grief asks us to do the hard work of feeling that pain and of working through the process. Maybe it’s the five famous stages or maybe it isn’t. Maybe active grieving takes six months or maybe three years. Or 13. Or 30. The point is that it is different for everyone.
Smith shows her discomfort with grief, pain, mourning–even FEELING– in that quote.
Now, I don’t doubt that she felt grief keenly when she lost loved ones. But by keeping it at arm’s length and suggesting that we, too, should distance ourselves from grief as quickly as possible, she does us all a disservice.
I still love you, Patti. But I think you’re dead wrong about grief.
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